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Sprint’s $5 billion WiMAX venture will be launched in the spring of 2008 in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, with a nationwide rollout to follow. But Ars Technica got a preview on the Chicago River yesterday.


Hosted by Motorola, tonight’s event was a chance to get an idea of WiMAX’s real-world performance. For the demo, Motorola set up a mini network along the Chicago River consisting of four towers stretching across approximately 0.8 miles of the river, one on the north bank and three on the south.

There were 12 laptops and tablet PCs along with a handful of WiMAX-enabled cell phones simultaneously using the network to stream data, video, and voice. Barry West, CTO and president of 4G mobile broadband for Sprint Nextel, described the mini-network as “a sample of what our service will look like across the country.”

The laptops and tablets all had massive PCMCIA cards with what looked to be two antennae protruding from slots on the sides of the machines, while the cell phones were popular Motorola handset models with new internals supporting WiMAX and 802.11b/g.

The surfing went off without a hitch, with the sole exception of Apple.com, which we were unable to load (only 2.5G need apply?). Every other site loaded quickly and seemed very snappy. ESPN.com, which is a Flash-heavy web site with a video box, loaded quickly and the Flash video box began playing quickly.

After watching the video and browsing some random web sites, I asked the tech to load Speedtest.net. While Speedtest.net has its limitations, it had the advantage of being easily accessible. It’s also one of the tools I used to benchmark and evaluate Verizon’s EV-DO service over the summer.

The results were impressive. The first time we ran the test, we got 2425Kbps down and 1474Kbps up with a 99ms ping, with the S.S. Summer of George cruising down the river 30 feet below street level. We hit Speedtest again after the boat tied up, and the results were even better: 3229Kbps down and 1500Kbps up with a 70ms ping.

On the boat, Barry West told us that we were witnessing the “birth of a new technology that’s going to change how human beings communicate.”

Granted, testing 12 laptops and four towers is a far cry from a fully-deployed network with hundreds (or thousands) of users on the same tower. But if the broadband-like performance I experienced on the Chicago River tonight is any indication how WiMAX and Xohm will perform, human beings in the US are going to have an attractive communication alternative once the network goes live.

Tricia Duryee at the Seattle Times also has a report and posted a video (above).

In addition to the cruise, Motorola demonstrated uninterrupted handoff while driving at speeds beyond 50 mph and while riding Chicago’s famed elevated train.

RCR Wireless interviewed Clearwire’s Scott Richardson;

WiMAX has been billed as a much cheaper alternative to other technologies? Why is that?

WiMAX is really getting the benefit of time on infrastructure, but it’s not necessarily WiMAX itself that’s enabling that. On the device side there are huge benefits. I always use the example, if you look at a 3G data card that will go into a laptop, that data card is roughly $150 to $200.

But you don’t get the attach rate of that technology into high volume onto consumer electronic devices if the technology’s that expensive. And we believe that WiMAX is closer to Wi-Fi in its cost structure. And the equivalent Wi-Fi type of card is really a sub-$50. When you get into that lower price point from an end-user perspective, you start to see the attach rates in technology go up very high.

“Motorola has made tremendous progress in the deployment of our Xohm WiMAX network in Chicago,” said Barry West, Sprint Nextel CTO and president, Xohm Business Unit. “We are on schedule to begin Xohm pre-commercial service in Chicago by the end of 2007, with commercial service planned in that and other markets beginning April 2008.”

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